According to Julião Sarmento, he still has everything to do. Perhaps this is the reason why he’s the Portuguese artist with greatest international visibility. In addition to various exhibitions in Portugal, until the end of the year, his work will be on show in Palma de Mallorca, São Paulo, Ohio and Paris.
Julião Sarmento doesn’t like amusing art. He considers himself “a builder of enigmas” and has some difficulty in analysing his own work. Essentially, what he wants is for the viewer to rethink life through his work, whether it’s video, sound, sculpture, performance, film, photography or painting.
The artist believes that saying women are the focus of his work is an oversimplification. On other occasions, he has said that it’s a “limited view”, while, in this interview, he agreed, using his trademark irony: “Well, didn’t we all come from a mother? Everyone needs a leitmotiv. Some need still life; others are more focussed on landscapes. I dedicate myself to women: What can I do?”
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When presenting the exhibitions -me and What Makes a Writer Great at the Instituto Açoriano de Cultura in 2002, the essayist and art critic Delfim Sardo wrote: “whether in more recent work, or in his first pieces, we can easily see that the artist uses a number of themes that are repeated, almost like an obsession that permeates his work. Firstly, sex (or, more explicitly, desire) represented on bodies that, sometimes in an explicit form, other times as subtle suggestion, focus on our most well-hidden ghosts”.
And can everyone see them? Julião Sarmento told the magazine Visão in April 2008 that “art is for those who deserve it”. He confessed how frustrated and uncomfortable he feels when his work is bought because of the value of his signature. “It would be better to be able to choose the people who buy my work.”
“I’m an artist, full stop”
Chosen to represent Portugal at the Venice Biennale in 1997, with the enormous national and international visibility that goes with it, he is represented in galleries in the four corners of the world and recently exhibited at the prestigious Tate Modern and showed his Artists and Writers / House and Home exhibition at The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton (New York). “It certainly gives me pleasure and satisfaction. But being pleased with myself? No. It’s a work in progress; I want to do much more. I’m hungry for power.” The part about the ambition for power is said between laughs. The tone becomes more serious when he talks of the means he uses to disseminate ideas. If he is considered a multi-faceted artist, according to him: “I am and I’m not. I’m an artist that has a discourse. And the means: painting, video, sound, sculpture are only the vehicle to present that specific idea”. He’s more interested in the concept. And what’s the motive for making a video, painting a picture or a performance?
To make it easier for mere mortals to understand, he compares himself to a cook. “If I want to make cod à Gomes de Sá, I’ll go and look at the ingredients in the recipe”. “I’m not a painter, but rather an artist who uses painting. Just like I’m not a filmmaker, or video maker or draughtsman. I’m an artist, full stop.”
He attended ESBAL art school (Escola Superior de Belas Artes de Lisboa) between 1967 and 1974. Boasting both a great affinity for American pop and a strong cinematographic influence, his artistic experience ranges from pop-inspired work to the post-conceptual. Between 1974 and 1980, Julião Sarmento invested his time in conceptual art (during this time he didn’t paint one picture, instead he dedicated his efforts to photography, sound and films), to then return to more traditional materials at the beginning of the eighties, enjoying the sense of discovery again. Recently, he has been working with video and films again, but tells us: “I’ve still got everything to do. There are other forms of artistic representation that I haven’t used yet and will use”.
It was in the ‘80s that Julião Sarmento went global. In 2009, he told the magazine Única that, in terms of exhibiting his work, his proudest moment was in 1982 at the Kassel Dokumenta, where he would return in 1987. In the ten years that followed, Julião Sarmento had solo exhibitions in Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Brazil, Canada and England, not to mention countless collective shows the world over. In 1997, he presented a collection of works from the “Pinturas Brancas” (White Paintings) series at the Venice Biennale, created especially for the Palazzo Vendramin dei Carmini.
In the living room of his house in Estoril, where this interview takes place, we’re surrounded “by pictures by friends”, which include a line by Lawrence Weiner (a core figure in conceptual art) written on the wall “& The Pursuit of Happiness”. The exception to this rule is a small picture that was shown at the Venice Biennale: “It’s the only thing of mine that’s here. I think it’s ostentatious to have my work at home. I spend the day at the studio looking at them, when I arrive home I have to give my eyes a rest and look at other pieces I enjoy.”
To discover the work of Julião Sarmento, art lovers should consult the catalogue raisonné of his numbered editions, an edition of the Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporáneo (MEIAC), coordinated by Delfim Sardo and Maria Jesus Ávila and which spans over three decades of his oeuvre. After Júlio Pomar, he is the second living Portuguese artist to have such a catalogue of his work.
He says he became the most well-known Portuguese artist in the world simply by writing letters. “There were young artists I was interested in. I didn’t write to Andy Warhol, but I did write to Ben Vautier, for example, to a Polish artist called Zdzislaw Sosnowski and Sigurdur Gudjonsson, an Icelandic artist whose work I liked. They were essentially artists from Eastern Europe; Polish, Yugoslavian. One of my best friends is Marina Abramović, who’s now a star, but at that time was just a young artist living in Belgrade.”
The Italian magazine Flash Art, which was founded in the ‘60s, was also partially responsible. “It was the most influential magazine, because it gave intelligent information. I became aware of these artists and their work via the magazine.” One of these correspondences led to an exhibition in Poland, where the work of artist Fernando Calhau, a friend from both college and beyond, was also on show: “After that, it just snowballed”.
His presence in many foreign galleries occurred because of the Portuguese gallery Módulo’s presence at the Basel Art Fair. “I was seen by the gallery, who liked what they saw and extended me an invitation. Then there were other marchands who saw my work at the gallery and I started to get a foothold on the circuit.”
This is the story of a boy who was born and bred on Rua de Arroios, in Lisbon, when horse and cart still rattled down the street. The story of a boy who drew his own version of Mandrake, of Knight Errant and Walt Disney characters; “despite not having any patience whatsoever for comics nowadays.” Who had an aunt Amélia, who he describes as “a free spirit, a kind of pre-hippie who opened my eyes to the world.” Who considered studying philosophy and law, but ended up choosing architecture. At ESBAL he also studied painting. A boy who, on the first day of school, met Fernando Calhau, who became his friend and partner in things artistic. Who spent four years of his life in the army, but who escaped the colonial war because he came top of the class at military school. As artists were treated “like dirt” at that time, he worked at the Secretary of State for Culture. “As it was unfulfilling work, one day I thought ‘screw it, I’m going to do my own work’. And, by the looks of it, it has worked out”.
by Maria João Veloso
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